What’s Wrong With: Burning Books?

Santo Domingo y los albigenses-detalleI’ve blogged a bunch of times about various book-burning episodes and the murderous reactions that people sometimes have to them. In fact, I recently blogged about a furious Neocrusader being prevented from burning a whole pile of Qur’ans.

Over the time I’ve blogged about this foolish phenomenon, I’ve had a few correspondents question why I find it troublesome, including one who contacted me recently. To paraphrase this person: “You admit being a godless agnostic heathen. What difference does it make to you, whether or not someone burns a Qur’an?”

Let me be the first to say this is an excellent question! Answering it, is complicated. So bear with me while I try.

First, whether or not someone burns a Qur’an — or any other book, whether sacred or otherwise — most certainly does not affect me, personally, in any way. But neither does it do anything for the person who burns it (except maybe as a way for him/her to vent his/her anger about something). Neocrusaders like to think that burning Qur’ans somehow harms the religion of Islam or Muslims in some way. In truth, it does no such thing. Nor does it harm any other Qur’an that may be out there. Burning a copy of any book, doesn’t harm the content of that book. Unless you can track down and burn every copy that exists of a published book, you will not accomplish anything. The book itself will live on, in all those other copies.

Second, I’m all for Book burning (4)freedom of expression, even stupid and futile expression. I don’t favor preventing people from burning any book … so long as they own the books they’re burning and they can do it safely. That said, what kind of expression is it? It’s inherently futile, as I just explained, so while it may reveal that a book-burner is angry about the book, there are other ways to convey that information, which are less childish. We already know that, for instance, Neocrusaders hate Islam and want it wiped out. So what if they burn Qur’ans, on top of it? What else does that tell us? Not one fucking thing.

Third, books — any books, again whether sacred or not — are all intellectual accomplishments. Yes, even lousy ones! Only humanity (so far as we know) writes and publishes books. The ideas a particular book contains may be reprehensible or evil (e.g. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Malleus Maleficarum, Mein Kampf, etc.), but that can’t change this fact. If a book’s content is wrong or harmful, the solution is countering the wrong or harmful ideas, not burning copies of the book itself. Besides, burning books deprives one of the opportunity to discover and understand detrimental ideas and know them for what they are. I’ve read all three of the books I just listed … not because I like or agree with any of them, but because I wanted to know why they caused so much harm. Burning any of them would be a waste of time and effort, and could deprive someone else of this same knowledge.

Fourth, just because I have no metaphysical beliefs doesn’t mean I can’t find any value in sacred texts like the Qur’an, the Bible, Enuma Elish, the Enneads, Metamorphoses, the Eddas & Sagas, Kalevala, the Rig Veda, Bhagavad Gita, and so on. These are all literature, and influential (either currently, or historically). Even the texts of religions that have been lost, tell us about human history, and have value as such. I don’t need to believe in the absolutely veracity of the notions contained within these books in order to get something out of them.

The bottom line isBook burning (2), because even the worst books can offer people lessons, in a way, burning a book is an offense against the human intellect. Thus, one might say it’s inherently wrong ever to do so.

As for people’s reactions to burning books, those are just as pointless as the book-burnings themselves, at best, and at worst, are horrifically detrimental. Did, for example, the Afghans who rioted and killed over rumors of a burned Qur’an really get anything out of doing so? No. All they did was destroy property, and maim or murder people. Their violent rage accomplished nothing whatsoever, and only caused a lot of harm … often to each other. I get that they were angry and worked up, but really, was anything about this worthwhile? Did any of this childish violence restore a burned Qur’an from smoldering ashes? No way!

So there you have it. Burning a holy book doesn’t harm that book itself, the religion which reveres it, or the people who follow that religion. By the same token, looting and murdering over burned holy books doesn’t undo the burning of the book, and doesn’t help those angered by it.

So what’s my point, in all of this? Ultimately, it’s that burning books is totally pointless! Ascribing metaphysical power to a book, burning a copy of it in the hope of taking away that power, and erupting in violence in order to restore that power, is useless, stupid, and juvenile. That’s all there is to it.

Photo credit: All from Wikimedia Commons: Top; middle; bottom.

Page created: September 18, 2013. Last modified: February 16, 2016

  • anna

    ‘Useless, stupid and juvenile’ to burn books. True: but it’s much more dangerous than that: it was the poet Heinrich Heine who said, ‘Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people’. People in England were burned by the church for daring to own a Bible (a BIBLE!!) in English. The Nazis burned ‘degenerate’ books, then moved on to ‘degenerate’ people. Moslems burned Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ then put a price on his head. His publishers and translators were actually murdered…..

    • Although I don’t normally go in for “slippery slope” thinking, you have a point. Book-burning can be, and has been, a way of getting the ball rolling (as it were).

  • Ironically enough, at least some Muslim authorities say that “Perhaps the best method of disposal of sheets of paper on which Qur’anic verses are written is to burn them.”

    That said, book burning is pretty clearly morally wrong, albeit in a relatively mild way: it’s wasteful and bad for the environment. Books should be recycled when no longer needed. (This unfortunately would be considered “desecration” of a Quran.)

    • It’s very possible that it’s not only Muslims who dispose of unneeded or damaged sacred texts by burning them. That is, for example, the way tattered flags are to be disposed of. I don’t know of any Jewish or Christian sects that have a similar mandate, but without researching a lot of them, I can’t really say. 

      Yes, damaged books and papers ought to be recycled, not burned. Absolutely. 

      As for the hypocrisy of being outraged that Qur’ans have been burned by non-Muslims, but mandating burning of them (under some circumstances) by Muslims … well, when have you ever known religionists to be consistent in their thinking?